Monday, March 7, 2016

Downton Abbey Is Over. Watch It Again Like This.

BAS SIJPKES / FLICKR
[Disclaimer: Mild spoilers ahead.]

When Gwen Harding reappears in the final season of Downton Abbey, she symbolizes how out-of-place the noble Crawley family has become. A former maid at Downton and now a respectable middle-class citizen, Gwen is immediately recognized by the servants but not by her old employers. She represents a new era where nobles must accept their diminishing influence and acknowledge the views of a group they had been accustomed to ignore. In America, white people are increasingly being called out for their racism, and a big reason why the show resonates with its white fans here is because they do not feel personally implicated by its portrayal of privilege. They can see how an unexamined belief in birthright has hurt the Crawleys, yet don’t have to question their own inherited privilege. But that’s why Downton Abbey is the ideal way to call attention to the post-racial fantasies of our own age.

I'm not saying that white people believe they are American nobility. I'm saying that nobility is a useful analogy for whiteness. The Crawleys routinely ignore the lives of their servants because they haven’t had to pay attention to them. For example, they know nothing about the ambitions of their servants, remembering Gwen only when the underbutler Thomas outs her. Thomas himself suffers greatly this season because Lord Grantham and his obsequious butler Carson turn a blind eye to his needs. The obliviousness of the Dowager Countess to working-class life is usually played for laughs, such as when she famously asks, "What is a weekend?" On the other hand, the servants cannot afford to ignore the reality of the nobles. Their lives and livelihood depend on their exacting familiarity with the Crawleys and their aristocratic culture. Like members of any other oppressed group, the servants must know the vanities of the privileged group by heart.

After six seasons of Downton Abbey, many white viewers probably know more about the lives of its fictional servants than those of actual black people. This is because most white people can succeed at their jobs while knowing nothing about black reality. Hence the antiracist #OscarsSoWhite and campus protest movements. Black Lives Matter is controversial because white people can't believe that law enforcement is as bad as black people say. Yet black parents must be experts on whiteness in order to have "The Talk" with their children about encounters with police. Some white people observe MLK Day by quoting one out-of-context sentence, then complain about the unfairness of Black History Month a couple of weeks later. The Australian actor Barry Humphries caused a stir when he suggested that Downton Abbey was popular in America because "there are no black people in it." Regardless of how white people keep black people out of their living rooms, it's hard to see oppression only when you decide to tune in.


Fans of Downton Abbey know that the more the Crawleys insist upon their nobility, the less fulfilled and humane they are. Although we might find something to envy about Lord Grantham or Lady Mary, we would also never, ever want to be the kind of human beings they turned out to be. We shake our heads at the folly of their internalized superiority. Despite her zingers, the imperious Dowager Countess is a lonely figure whose only real friend is her progressive cousin Isobel. For most of the series, we watch the younger nobles pursue inappropriate relationships of all kinds because their reputation must come before their happiness. Their servants literally and figuratively pay the price for this, such as when Anna humiliates herself buying contraceptives for the obtuse Lady Mary. Most memorably, Lord Grantham puts Lady Sybil at risk during her labor because he trusts an unknown aristocratic doctor more than the village doctor. The Crawleys are at their worst when they are nobles first, human beings second. It makes sense, then, that when the footman Molesley begins his new career as a schoolteacher, his first lesson is to debunk the divine right of kings.

If white people compared whiteness and nobility, they might observe what their privilege has cost them too. As Lady Sybil found out, privilege can be bad for your health. A New York Times study revealed that rates of drug overdose have skyrocketed among whites in part because doctors assume that white patients will be more responsible with prescription drugs. Like the servants at Downton, people of color have seen how privilege warps the perspective of otherwise decent people. In a recent article, Iris Kuo raised the issue of the inability of white people to tell Asians apart. "Yes, it rarely happens out of malice," Kuo writes. "Yes, it is often accidental. Yes, it is bumbling, careless, idiotic and unintentional. But it is absolutely not right." A profile of power agent Chris Jackson, who is black, highlights his experiences with repeatedly being mistaken for one of his most famous clients, Ta-Nehisi Coates. But these insults owe to more than a momentary slip of the mind. Their origin in segregation is ancient, inbred. The "burden of whiteness," Coates memorably tweeted, is that you "can live in the world of myth and be taken seriously."

"White Only Beck's Cabs," Albany GA (1962) / Warren Leffler
Of course, Downton Abbey tried to deal with racism in its fourth season, but the storyline of its only black character portrayed racism as the sum of individual sins only. At a time when the meaning of white identity is dangerously confused, when white people now claim to be the victims of racism because of their whiteness, we need to stop thinking about "white" as only a box to check like "married" or "single." We need to remember that "white" is an idea invented to make superiority inheritable, like nobility. "White" was never an ethnic group like the Irish or Germans, identities which can exist independently of one another. In America, "white" identity has always been premised on black inferiority, making racism our national origin story. Yet no television show does for whiteness what Downton Abbey does for nobility, so we must use our imagination. Just as nobility is at the core of England’s social history, whiteness centers our own in America, but we don’t think to compare them because racism is seen as an individual moral failure and not a national strategic plan.

In one of the final episodes of Downton Abbey, the Crawleys decide to raise money for the local hospital by opening their house to the villagers for a day. The elders despise the idea of being put on display for gawking townspeople. The servants question the family’s elitism, with the woke kitchen maid Daisy proclaiming, "What gives them the right to keep people out?" Most tellingly, Lady Cora and her daughters, serving as guides, are all stumped by the guests’ earnest questions about the artifacts in their home, completely unaware of their own privileged history. A young boy wanders off the tour and finds himself in an upstairs bedroom, aside a recuperating Lord Grantham. The boy innocently asks the Crawley patriarch why he needs such a large house, and wouldn't he be happier in a comfy place like his own? "Maybe," Lord Grantham reflects warmly. "But you know how it is. You like what you're used to."


The honor of having Downton Abbey’s last word ever belongs, of course, to the Dowager Countess. The series concludes shortly past midnight on New Year’s Day, 1926, with the Dowager remarking how much she likes that people will "drink to the future, whatever it may bring." Her confidante Isobel wonders what else to toast to since they’re not going "back into the past." Laughing, the Dowager adds, "If only we had the choice." For millions of us, Downton Abbey was compelling drama because we stood witness to the end of an epoch. Today, we are nowhere near the finale of white supremacy, despite what Hollywood leads us to believe. White people also like what they are used to. But like Isobel and Gwen, we have always had more choices for how to live our lives, if only we would act on them. White people might even commit to seeing themselves as people of color sometimes see them: as characters in the current season of a long-running period drama about racism in America.